R44 in fatal Australian crash had fuel tanks at known risk for post-crash fire

The Australian Transportation Safety Bureau (ATSB) has confirmed that the Robinson R44 helicopter involved in a fatal crash south of Sydney on March 21 was equipped with all-aluminum fuel tanks known to increase the risk of post-impact fires.

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All four occupants on board the helicopter perished when the helicopter impacted terrain and exploded into flames after clipping trees while landing at a function center near Bulli Tops, New South Wales. Bankstown Helicopters, the registered operator of the aircraft, is said to have hired the aircraft to a pilot conducting “private operations.”

Witnesses to the crash described a horrific scene, with one witness telling Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that nearby restaurant staff “grabbed every fire extinguisher in the building, but there were too many flames . . . There was nothing anyone could do.”

On March 22, the ATSB confirmed that the accident helicopter was equipped with the all-aluminum fuel tanks that are known to be susceptible to post-accident fuel leaks after low-impact crashes. Robinson Helicopter Co. (RHC) issued Service Bulletin (SB)-78 on Dec. 20, 2010, recommending that R44s with all-aluminum fuel tanks be retrofitted with bladder-type fuel tanks as soon as practical, but no later than Dec. 31, 2014. On Feb. 21, 2012, RHC issued SB-78A, revising the date of compliance to Dec. 31, 2013.

The ATSB issued a related safety advisory notice after a Feb. 4, 2012 crash that killed noted Australian filmmaker and producer Andrew Wight and Emmy-Award-winning U.S. filmmaker and marine biologist Mike deGruy — an accident that also involved a Bankstown Helicopters R44. In that notice, the ATSB urged R44 owners to speed up the process of retrofitting their helicopters’ aluminum gas tanks and to also replace their helicopters’ rotor brake switches, which could serve as a possible ignition source in the event of a fuel leak. The ATSB also referenced a 2011 fatal crash in New South Wales, in which two people died in a post-impact fire after an R44 collided with the ground shortly after lift-off during flight training.  

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According to the ATSB, about 4,000 R44 helicopters were manufactured with all-aluminum tanks. To date, over 1,700 bladder-type retrofit kits have been shipped worldwide for fitment.

Editor’s Note: Original news reports said the helicopter was carrying a young couple en route to inspect their wedding venue. Subsequent news reports identified the victims as four long-serving scientists who had held positions with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

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